Willie Reviews Wilco’s “Ode to Joy”

Willie Reviews Wilco’s “Ode to Joy”

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In Chicago’s Lincoln Park, a statue stands of Friedrich Schiller, author of “Ode to Joy.” Chicago-based Wilco just released an album called Ode to Joy. While we wait for their statue, here’s RPM’s review of the beautiful and anxiety-stricken record:

My favorite Wilco couplet is “How to fight loneliness / smile all the time.” It’s a perfectly measured piece of advice that both screams its joke-ness and invites you to try it. I sing it to myself now and again, and it’s a surprisingly effective way of compartmentalizing problems. Deferring to front man and songwriter Jeff Tweedy makes a lot of sense sometimes. But underneath the instruction to smile is a current that runs throughout their body of work, including their most recent album, Ode to Joy: lying to yourself is ridiculous, but the most human thing to do is recognize this and keep going. That’s not to say that life requires holding every intrusive worry at arm’s length. Instead, insisting through excruciating pain that the weight of the world is not crushing you is a mundane necessity. Tweedy’s explanation for the tone of the album involves making music while “this terrible stuff is happening, this deepening sense of creeping authoritarianism that weighs on everybody’s psyche on a daily basis.” He and his bandmates have put together an indirectly political album, in that the speaker is always reacting against that “deepening, creeping” threat. As they simmer in the great angst, they find their footing in personal opposition to it and revelation despite it.

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Stubborn insistence comes up most often when the songs turn to love. On “Hold Me Anyway,” Tweedy poses a question, then answers it: “Are we all in love, just because? / No, I think it’s poetry and magic.” The quiet, wavering question clashes with the buoyant boast of a reply, and the whole band comes in to echo the latter. Beyond being the conversations we have with ourselves, this exchange also mirrors the reaction we have to love songs. If love isn’t on your mind, the whole world seems crazy in its warped justifications for making life fit the mold of love as the final purpose. You whisper doubts, but receive a trumpetting rejection. But if you, too, are wrapped up in it, you live in the chorus of “Hold Me Anyway.”

The even poppier “Everyone Hides” bears a similar message. It boils emotion down to a succinct phrase in the way that only Wilco can. You hide your inner self, as do I, as does everyone we know. But the song ends up in a more unequivocally positive place than the worrying air of “Hold Me Anyway.” It should be an assurance that your behavior has an explanation, and your inability to know yourself is incredibly normal. The (very cute) music video for “Everyone Hides” splits the band up on a hide-and-seek chase across Chicago that doesn’t really add up to one thing or another. Despite guitarist Nels Cline’s and the others’ enthusiasm for the game, Jeff can’t bring himself to join in.

Wilco in the weeds, photo by Annabel Mehran

One of the band’s musical signatures is amplified, thumping percussion, which seems to be the musical parallel to Tweedy’s lyrical persistence. The album opener “Bright Leaves” kicks off with a regular pounding, and “Quiet Amplifier” uses a metronomic beat to carry it through. Drummer Glenn Kotche’s inventive rhythms are the driving force for the band to keep going despite it all. If the fear is of stopping for a moment and losing a grip on reality, then the solution is to keep running. Wilco never stops running. That also comes from having a six-person band. Whether they’re imitating the Beatles’ Help era pop sensibilities on “Citizens” or achieving maximum separation between instruments on “Before Us,” they spread a germ of a thought into an expansive product. The fact that they play in a group together makes the idea of loneliness a more comforting, shared experience in some ways.

Still, there are moments when it all bubbles over. “We Were Lucky” is a looser, rougher song than many others on the album. As it rides the line between sense and nonsense, a Richard Thompson-type solo collapses the structure mid-song. It bursts into the song’s created order until Tweedy’s voice returns and cools it down. The reminder of a palpable danger remains, barely kept at bay. On “One and a Half Stars,” the lyrics shirk the music and insist that “I can’t escape my domain.” It’s not a consoling thought, but wouldn’t it look great as an inscription on the Wilco statue?

Score: Hiding from a book.

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